Dufine and Ottavio’s buck the trend of mass-market furniture

For as long as factories can efficiently spit out objects, craft has been an antidote to the chilly uniformity of mass production,” wrote Julie Lasky in her May 23, 2012 New York Times article, “Going With the Grain.” But the cookie-cutter approach has had its effect, perhaps nowhere greater than in the area of home furniture.

“People used to care a lot more about their furniture, how it looked, the quality of the materials used and its upkeep,” says Frank Savastano, owner of Dufine Furniture at 546 E. 170th St. in the Bronx, one of two venerable, family-owned and operated fine furniture businesses featured here that have adhered to Old World principles by creating one-of-a-kind pieces. The other is Ottavio’s at 711 Main St. in New Rochelle.

Both have much in common. Foremost, they are led by artisans with a reputation for making distinctively beautiful furniture for highly appreciative customers — homeowners, entrepreneurs, business owners, interior designers/decorators, restaurateurs, even celebrities. Their satisfaction is so high that the source of new business for Dufine and Ottavio’s has come entirely through word-of-mouth, referrals and repeat work.

Remarkably, over the decades of being in business, neither has ever spent money on advertising or marketing. It wasn’t until two years ago that Dufine launched a website (dufinefurniture.com), and Ottavio’s is planning to join the Internet this month with ottavioswoodworking.com. Both have been using Facebook to help showcase their workmanship.

The fierce pride and passion in the craft that the descendants of Ottavio’s and Dufine are continuing have their origins in Italy, where the tradition for quality, handcrafted furniture runs strong.

“My father, Ottavio DeVivo, learned how to work with wood from his father in Serino, Italy before he came to America,” says his son, John.

The talented and ambitious immigrant founded Ottavio’s Woodworking in 1977 in the New Rochelle location. His two sons, John and Thomas, who worked for their father’s enterprise when they were young, entered the business in the ’90s. Together the brothers run the business today.

“After many trips to Italy with my father visiting various woodworking shops, my brother and I developed a love and appreciation for all things made from wood,” John recalled.

Like his grandfather, Nicholas Savastano, who established Nicholas Dufine Furniture Decorators in 1947, and his father, who followed in the business, Frank Savastano was smitten by the craft at an early age.

“I loved working with my hands when my grandfather showed me how to carve and then I continued by working in my father’s workshop after school and during summer vacations.”

The origin of the name, Dufine, speaks to the quality of the craftsmanship of the business’ founder.

“The story goes that when my grandfather started the business, everyone exclaimed that he did such fine work and thus he decided to incorporate using the name Nicholas Dufine,” Savastano says. A few years ago when his father retired and Frank took over the business, the name was shortened to Dufine Furniture to underscore the Dufine brand and tradition.

To say that Ottavio’s and Dufine feature master wood carvers is an understatement.

“My father says we have sawdust in our blood,” says Ottavio’s John DeVivo, adding, “We have worked with virtually all species of wood throughout the world and in almost every style of design.”

Much of the wood that Dufine uses is milled in Yorktown.

“We look at trees that have fallen like old walnut trees to see which parts will make for a gorgeous custom-designed table or wine cabinet,” Savastano says.

But this art requires more than creative wood carvers.

“It’s the finishing touches that make the difference,” notes DeVivo.  “How the accents are treated — gold leafing, hand painting, staining, colors used —create a unique look and feel to the piece.”

Savastano explained further: “There’s a wealth of knowledge that I learned from my grandfather and father about how the different lacquers amalgamate and how a certain color is achieved by mixing colors that go into the totality, creating something that is one-of-a-kind.”

Like any business, both started small and have grown over time. Ottavio’s initially focused on built-in cabinetry, including kitchens, bathrooms, libraries and general millwork. Today, the nature of the projects is more high-end and considerably more expansive than before.

“We are undertaking paneled libraries and multiple bathrooms in estate homes and have ventured into the commercial sectors as well with custom projects for a restaurant and café,” DeVivo says.

Dufine’s custom and antique restoration business started out small as well, but as noted decorators and architects discovered the high quality of the work, the business began to grow substantially. Its talents today have been enlivening the spaces of Old Greenwich mansions and have found their way to Chef Nick Di Bona’s Madison Kitchen in Larchmont and the LIC Beer Project in Long Island City among others. Looking to new marketing horizons, Savastano is exploring a custom line of Dufine furniture.

The wonderful thing about a great reputation is its power to attract celebrities as clients. Frank Sinatra was the first notable client of Dufine followed by Alex Rodriguez and design firms such as Eva’s Design and Decorating.

Baseball great Joe Torre and the late actor couple Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee of New Rochelle have been among Ottavio’s celebrity clients. Shortly before she passed away, Ruby Dee brought an end table to Ottavio’s that needed to be restored.

“When she picked it up, she was especially excited about the results,” DeVivo recalled. “She explained that the table had special meaning for her, because it had once belonged to Humphrey Bogart.”

There is no time clock for the passion that goes into the work of these talented business owners. It seems like there is always a fire in the belly. In his spare time, Savastano loves to draft and design different pieces.

“I am so proud of our family heritage and get tremendous satisfaction in knowing that I am creating something people can’t get anywhere else.”

DeVivo agreed. “Once I get excited about a design concept, I can’t stop obsessing about it until it becomes a reality. To know that, like my father, I am creating something that is going to be around and admired many years from now is a wonderful feeling.

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